- Bigger, Brighter, Louder: 150 Years of Chicago Theater As Seen by “Chicago Tribune” Critics by Chris Jones
Chris Jones’s anthology may not be scholarly, but it is valuable to theatre scholars. The lead theatre reviewer for the Chicago Tribune, Jones was able to plumb that newspaper’s archives in search of landmark reviews from the paper’s mid-nineteenth-century beginnings to the present, from which he selected one hundred and one, most not seen since their original publication. Jones’s collection includes reviews of both homegrown and touring productions, representative reviews from several generations of Tribune critics, and long-forgotten accounts of performances by prominent theatre artists and even some celebrities better known for their film and television work. (Imagine seeing Waiting for Godot with Harvey Korman as Didi and Mike Nichols as Lucky!) Jones includes vivid accounts of key events, most notably the 1904 Iroquois Theatre fire. Unlike many historical accounts of theatre in given cities, here the reader sits right beside the critic, experiencing memorable moments up close.
Jones’s book serves as a nice companion to Richard Christiansen’s A Theater of Our Own: A History and a Memoir of 1,001 Nights in Chicago, much as a baseball color commentator complements the ongoing spiel of a play-by-play announcer: Jones’s book is like the former, providing contextualizing anecdotes that enliven and heighten the stakes of Christiansen’s narrative. Combined, the two books trumpet the theatrical highs and lows of the proverbial “Second City.”
Chicago has long been a generator of noteworthy theatre, sending its artists and productions off to the East Coast hub for national consumption and cultural [End Page 343] validation. For example, Chicago Little Theatre artists Susan Glaspell and husband Jig Cook subsequently migrated east to help found the Provincetown Players. Similarly, Chicago newspaperman Ben Hecht relocated to New York City to extend his playwriting, and later screenwriting, career. Chicago nurtured Tennessee Williams, invented Second City improvisation, generated the satire Chicago and the musical Grease, and still later birthed the imaginings of director Robert Falls and the acting ensemble Steppenwolf. In the last three decades, no fewer than five of Chicago’s roughly three hundred theatres have won a Tony Award as best regional theatre.
Despite its prominence, relatively little has been written about Chicago’s profound theatrical contributions. Beyond Richard Christiansen’s aforementioned history, Harvey Young and Queen Meccasia Zabriskie coauthored Black Theater is Black Life: An Oral History of Chicago Theater and Dance, a collection of interviews with some of the city’s most notable modern black theatre and dance artists. The story of Second City’s improvisational comedy has been well documented by Jeffrey Sweet and Janet Coleman. But Bigger, Brighter, Louder still fills an important historical niche.
Jones organizes his reviews chronologically, bringing to light a progression of memorable events in Chicago theatre history. It opens with an 1853 notice of a show at Mr. Rice’s theatre and follows that with an 1868 review of Joseph Jefferson III as Rip Van Winkle—though still fledgling, nineteenth-century Chicago was a destination for touring stars. Subsequent reviews then chart major Chicago theatrical activity up to the 2012 Robert Falls production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, restaged in the spring of 2015 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Intriguing nuggets are found along the way: the 1890 Chicago debut of A Doll’s House; the original (Chicago-generated) production of The Wizard of Oz, from 1902; pans of both Tobacco Road and Waiting for Lefty; first looks at The Glass Menagerie, All My Sons, Waiting for Godot and Long Day's Journey into Night; debuts of American Buffalo and Working, The Grapes of Wrath and Gem of the Ocean, Clybourne Park and many more. Here is indeed a firsthand account of American theatre as seen through Midwest journalistic eyes.
Jones’s book also accounts for several generations of noteworthy reviewers. Percy Hammond started off at the Tribune before heading...